My heart was hammering like a "Hawaii Five-0" soundtrack, and I looked like a drowned rat, but I was doing it. I was surfing where Maui's alii, the ancient royalty, once surfed.
Now, I admit: It took some time to catch my wave. But -- and this is the sweet part -- it took my husband and two teen-age sons just as long to catch their waves.
Hawaii's second-largest island has 72 named beaches. Naturally you need to sample several before finding the perfect beach and the sympatico wave sport that makes you feel on top of the world. Depending on your degree of fearlessness, you might find yours faster than we did.
Trade winds push waves thousands of miles across open ocean toward Maui's north shore. Gathering power as they roll, waves top 20 feet before breaking 100 yards offshore at Hookipa Beach, known as the world's windsurfing capital. Airborne acrobats attain speeds up to 50 mph during international windsurfing competitions here.
A steady wind snarled my hair and blew foam off Hookipa's blue-green waves. Dozens of sailboards dipped and darted like butterflies through 10-foot swells. On the narrow beach, more windsurfers zipped themselves into wetsuits, cinched back braces and put together their rigs -- board, sail, mast, boom and mast base. Almost all were males, most looking about twentysomething.
"Those guys have dogs and beat-up vans and trucks. They can't be tourists. But it's noon. Do you think they have jobs?" asked Josh, 14.
Imagine defining a day not by school bells or business hours but by surf's up, wind's right.
A man on a neon yellow rig did several midair flips till a wave snapped his mast. His struggle to pull the maimed rig ashore showed us that Hookipa Beach is no place for novice windsurfers. (Local instructors teach beginners five miles west at Kanaha Beach.)
Maui's south shore is as dry and sunny as Arizona, especially at Makena's Big Beach, a popular hangout for local skimboarders. Palms fringe a 100-foot-wide swath of golden sand, behind which rises Mount Haleakala, a dormant volcano. Big Beach is so long that even with hundreds of beachgoers, it didn't feel crowded.
Teen-age boys ran full tilt into six-foot waves. They'd flop or kneel on boogie boards, whoosh up the face, then disappear into foam, miraculously emerging with necks and spines intact. Some skimboarders stood on their boards, sliding down wet sand to attempt half-tubes on incoming waves.
I coaxed our sons into the surf. Even when we held hands in knee-deep water, waves knocked us down, dumped sand in our suits and sucked us back to sea. I found it exhilarating and suggested we venture outside the breakers to bodysurf toward shore.
"Mom! No! That undertow is dangerous," said Abe, 17. Usually Steve and our sons have to cajole me up rock walls, down ski trails, around river snags. Feeling braver than them was bliss.
Seeking a break from pulse-pounding wave sports, we checked out the annual Celebration of the Arts (April 20-23, 2000) at the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua. Anyone can attend for free, whether or not they stay at the resort. The mostly outdoor event includes native Hawaiian art lessons, hula, storytelling and games.
A compact Polynesian, wearing a necklace of native candlenuts, showed us how to throw bamboo spears. "The old Hawaiians only needed to work four hours a day. They dedicated the rest of their time to song, arts and play. I'm trying to get kids back outdoors, back on surfboards and outrigger canoes," he said.
The take-home message for us was: Want to feel like you're in the real Hawaii? Learn to surf.
So we arranged to meet Tim Sherer, "board director" of Goofy Foot Surf School, at Lahaina Beach. His brochure said he'd taught people from ages 3 to 75 how to surf, 98 percent of them in their first two-hour lesson.
The pony-tailed instructor, known to his surfing buddies as "Timmy," looked right at home in Lahaina. The former whaling town has art galleries and a Hard Rock Cafe on Front Street, its waterfront main drag, but we saw goats and roosters outside homes on side streets.
Tim outfitted us with water socks, Spandex shirts and foam surfboards from his office -- a large van. Our lesson started on Lahaina's gritty brown beach.
"Hawaiians have been surfing for a thousand years, but Mainlanders didn't know about the sport till Jack London wrote about 'great smoking combers' and 'leaping upon the back of a breaker.'
"Lahaina is one of Hawaii's two best places to learn surfing. Instead of forming a top-to-bottom tube, these waves rise, then slo-o-o-o-owly subside. The ancient alii, the royalty, surfed here. King Kamehameha III lived on an island in an 11-acre fishpond, right over there," Tim said, pointing to the lot where we'd parked our rental car.
He'd marked lines on the boards to show where to put our hands and feet. He had us repeat four basic moves -- paddle, push up, crouch and stand -- so our muscles would memorize the sequence.
"Surfing is about following the path of least resistance. A riderless board will plane, or run true, with the wave. Balance your weight over the center mark. Lean forward to speed up, back to slow down," he said.
We pushed off and paddled beyond the lava rock harbor wall to where waves were cresting at three to four feet.
Tim and "Mikey," another Goofy Foot instructor, positioned our boards so good waves hit squarely. They gave us head-start pushes and called "Paddle, paddle, paddle!" as our boards rose.
My disgustingly competent husband rode his first wave 100 yards. "I did just like Tim said. Paddle. Push up. Crouch. OK, I guess I can stand," Steve reported. (But he soon felt seasick, sidelined by a swallow of saltwater.)
Meanwhile, I looked over my shoulder at a wave and tipped. Abe leaned too far forward while paddling and wiped out. Josh crouched, but his butt was too high, so he nosedived. I stood up, lost my nerve and jumped.
Paddling back was hard work. No wonder slim Tim has such a powerful neck and shoulders. "Tim, you're so patient and cheery, but I may be in that 2 percent who don't catch on. I have to think so hard about where to put which foot," I said.
"You have plenty of time," he said. We straddled our boards, resting outside the breakers. Tim rode a wave while doing a headstand on his board.
Time for another go. Suddenly I was standing, riding a wave as slow but powerful as a conveyor belt. "Yahoo!" Tim and Mike yelled. I surfed several waves, as did the boys.
"I was turning the wrong way and leaned down to grab the board, but my hand hit the water. I pivoted just where I wanted to go! It was so cool, like steering, like steering a snowboard," Josh said.
"I'm surprised how easy it is when I get up. Of course, most of the time I fall off," Abe said.
Paddling back to shore, we could see the perpetually cloudy West Maui mountains, separated from sunny Lahaina by seven miles of sugar cane and pineapple fields. Above the fields hung a rainbow.
It turns out rainbows in Maui are as common as beginners learning to surf at Lahaina.
For Maui maps and details on activities, events, dining and lodging, contact Maui Visitors Bureau, P. O. Box 580, Wailuku, Hawaii 96793; (800) 525-MAUI and (808) 244-3530; www.visitmaui.com.
Another great Web site is www.maui.net.
Windsurfing: Most Maui windsurfing schools teach beginners at Kanaha Beach, near Kahului Airport on the north shore. Lessons typically start on land, so students can practice on a windsurf simulator -- a board and sail rigged to a rotating turntable that simulates wind motions. Lessons run two to four hours and average $69 a person. Ask about discounts for groups, multiple lessons or advance booking.
Surfing: Except for Action Sports Maui (listed above), which offers lessons on the north shore, most Maui surfing schools teach beginners at Lahaina Beach. Lessons start on land, use foam surfboards and last two hours. Costs average $55 to $65 a person for groups of two to six people. Private lessons run $90 to $150 -- or $110 to $200 if you book with a head instructor.
Ask about children's clinics, surf safaris to more challenging beaches and online discounts.